Duelling paths for COVID-19 relief, budget bills emerge in US

Nancy Pelosi, Steve Mnuchin speak as Senate bipartisan group outlines two COVID-19 relief bills with deadline looming.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in coronavirus relief negotiations with Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as Congress races to meet a December 18 deadline for action [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in coronavirus relief negotiations with Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as Congress races to meet a December 18 deadline for action [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

United States House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed an enormous government spending bill meant to avert a government shutdown and a fresh round of COVID-19 relief on Monday, a Pelosi spokesman said.

Pelosi reiterated Democratic concerns about liability provisions in the COVID-19 relief bill, and told Mnuchin that remaining unresolved items in the spending bill could be resolved easily, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter.

“Recognizing the need to advance a final agreement on both matters together and quickly this week, the Speaker and the Secretary discussed the urgency of the committees finishing their work as soon as possible,” Hammill said.

Twin efforts were under way in the US Congress on Monday to reach a deal to avert a government shutdown and include a fresh round of aid to a coronavirus-hit nation.

Leaders of both parties appeared more upbeat about what would be the first COVID-19 aid bill since April, while a bipartisan group of legislators were unveiled details of their own approach.

The COVID-19 aid could be attached to a critical spending measure that must be passed by December 18 to avoid a federal government shutdown.

President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is again holding coronavirus relief negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a bipartisan group of senators unveils a pair of bills Congress can consider this week [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]
Leading politicians were hammering out that measure, a $1.4 trillion spending bill for the US government’s budget year that began on October 1. It would include money for programmes ranging from healthcare, homeland security and military readiness to foreign aid, national parks and nutrition. They have been operating on temporary funding.

Senator John Cornyn, a senior Republican, said he hoped for an agreement on pandemic relief between Democrat Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by December 16.

“I think they have been talking and I’m confident their staff are engaged,” Cornyn told reporters.

As for the bipartisan package, “I think it’s having a big, and a positive influence on what’s, what will be ultimately included,” Cornyn said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, a Republican, said the government spending bill could be filed as soon as December 15, and he hoped it would include COVID-19 relief.

“That’s what I’ve always proposed, I hope so. We’ve got to have an agreement on the COVID stuff,” he told reporters. Without a spending deal, the government would have to begin shutting non-emergency programmes and furloughing many workers in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 300,000 Americans, thrown millions out of work, and is getting worse as the colder months set in.

McConnell said his party was ready to pass something on COVID-19 and called on Democrats to do the same in a speech that avoided some of the finger-pointing from last week.

“The next several days are going to bring about one of two outcomes,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate.

“Either 100 senators will be here shaking our heads, slinging blame and offering excuses about why we still have not been able to make a law. Or, we will break for the holidays having sent another huge dose of relief out the door for the people who need it,” he said.

McConnell said funding for personal protective equipment, vaccine distribution and extended unemployment should be in any plan.

A bipartisan group of legislators from the House and Senate unveiled their own package, offering two proposals that could be voted on separately.

One, a $748bn proposal, includes aid to small businesses, the unemployed and vaccine distribution. It would offer $300 weekly in additional benefits to the unemployed, for 16 weeks.

The other bipartisan proposal includes the two main sticking points on Capitol Hill: liability protections for business, which are backed by Republicans, and $160bn for state and local governments, a Democratic priority. But not even all of the bipartisan group of legislators support it.

“Bipartisanship and compromise is alive and well in Washington, contrary to what you have been hearing,” Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat and one of the lead sponsors, told a news conference.

Source: Reuters

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